Mind Over Gut: Counterintuitive Truths in Poker

Instincts can be a valuable asset at the poker table. Reading people requires us to tap into parts of our subconscious that no poker book could ever teach. Unfortunately, poker presents certain instances where our natural inclinations can mislead us. Here’s how to get ahead of flawed reasoning in four commonly misunderstood areas of poker.

The idea of ‘even’

A game of poker is a series of independent hands. The result of one hand bears no consequence to the strategy of the next hand. That is to say, if you have 1000 chips in your stack you shouldn’t care whether you started with 200 chips or 2000, yet so many players do.

It’s a speciously human quality to be loss-averse at the expense of expected returns, even when the amount at stake is inconsequential. A study by Smith, Levere and Kurtzman in the journal of management science showed that poker players play far looser and more aggressively directly after losing a big pot, and tighter and more passively directly after winning a big pot.

When you feel the urge to “get back to even” or “lock up the win,” remember that these emotions can cloud your better judgement. A great poker player will simply make the best decisions they can given the strategic information of the game.

Embracing what is out of your control

As humans we are naturally averse to uncertainty. Consider the following example: would you rather be given $100, or flip a coin and receive $205 if it lands heads and nothing if it lands tails? Despite the fact that on average you would make more money flipping the coin, most people prefer the guaranteed $100.

In poker we face many decisions where the risky bet will win us more chips on average. If you are dealt two aces, would you prefer to call and see the flop or go all-in and risk the chance of losing to a worse hand? Even though it’s scarier to assume risk to pursue a reward, you’ll rarely get to win as much risk-free as you would by taking calculated risks.

The best way to embrace what is out of your control is to zoom out and look at the long run. If I make this risky play 1,000 times, will I win more than if I were to make the safe play 1,000 times? If the answer is yes, it is almost always a good idea to take the risk.

Playing when you’re not having fun

Certain players feel like they have to win every time they play, or that they have to put in a specific number of hours to justify the drive.  Some days it’s just not in the cards, and that’s ok. If you’re getting bored or frustrated, just call it a day and come back when you feel like it. Poker’s not going anywhere.

Assigning chip values to hands

A common thought among beginning players is to assign a value to each starting hand and call bets equal to or lower than that value. While this simplifies poker and can make sense intuitively, in practice this ignores important contextual information.

Instead try to think about what purpose a hand serves. If you are starting with a low pair and are hoping to make three of a kind, you want to ensure that you can win a big enough pot when you do make three of a kind to offset the times you don’t and have to fold.

Rather than looking at how big a bet you have to call to see the flop, consider factors such as the number of players in the hand or how likely those players are to call your bets if you make three of a kind.

Situational properties of hands inform their value and the way they should be played. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution and there is no substitute for experience… besides learning from the experience of others.

We teach lessons created by poker pro Melanie Weisner to give women a ground-up poker education. If you’re interested in learning the power of poker with a group of like-minded women, sign up for a class.

Poker Power is for educational purposes and does not permit gambling in our clubs. No poker experience is required.